Shadow Lives is a decade-long photographic book and transmedia project that humanizes, in a highly intimate fashion, the experiences and lives of the millions of men and women who leave their homes in search of a better life in the United States. Overwhelmingly, these men and women leave to escape the brutal social violence and grinding poverty that increasingly define the conditions of life for poor and working people from Central America to the United States.
Jon Lowenstein has witnessed the increasingly difficult odds that undocumented immigrants face as they encounter social violence and dire poverty in their homelands. These dangers include increasing levels of social violence, a brutal smuggling trade that systematically exploits them, an increasingly punitive legislative environment in the United States and a far tougher global economy in which they compete.
To show this reality Jon Lowenstein has documented social violence in Guatemala, deportation flights from the United States to Mexico and Guatemala, illegal border crossings to the United States, undocumented migrants who’ve been handicapped while working on the job, migrant deaths in the desert, and the increasing militarization of the US/Mexico border.
Jon Lowenstein has also spent considerable time with families torn apart by the schizophrenic federal immigration policy. He has also followed the intense effort by the migrant community to organize and fight for a place in their new country.
Today this is becoming a full fledged refugee crisis. While in Central America and Mexico the pressure of social violence continues to impact the local population, the Trump administration is pushing hard to close the borders further and take a truly reactionary and xenophobic stand against undocumented migrants.
During the past decade, millions of Latin American migrants have left their homes and risked death on the perilous journey to the United States in search of a chance to live the ‘American Dream.’ Once here, many of these migrants face economic exploitation, live under the increasing specter of criminality and confront a right-wing political movement dedicated to their removal from American society. Despite these obstacles, these resilient immigrants have contributed greatly to the economy and are transforming American culture in communities across the nation. How the world’s wealthiest nation integrates the estimated 12 million undocumented Latino immigrants will define the future of this country for decades.
The struggle about how best to define and treat this growing and increasingly influential population is one of the most vital and complex issues our nation faces. Although many agree that the current immigration system is not working, few can find common language or understanding to forge effective solutions.
Thousands of Mexican and Central American migrants are returned to their home countries each year by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE. The agency operates about 48 flights each week to deport people from the United States back to their country of origin.
Depending on the crime the migrants commit will determine whether or not they will be shackled throughout the flight. The flights originate from various parts of the United States. Approximately 400,000 people were deported this past year.
Thousands of Mexican and Central American migrants are returned to their home countries each year by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement
A Cruel Exodus
During the past several years I have made at least four trips to Guatemala to document the social upheaval and its impact on the local population. I have arrived at a murder scene three minutes after a bus driver was fatally shot, witnessing the last bit of life ebb from his body after he was pulled from the bus. Exodus follows the journey that migrants take through the Peten Jungle in Northern Guatemala. The men and women ride on the back of a smuggler’s truck crammed into a steel cage meant to transport livestock. Like the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, these migrants are fleeing the Dust Bowl of their home countries, facing extortion, robbery and death in their journey to the promised land of the United States.
292 people were murdered in Guatemala in 2008. Most of them were killed in the capital of Guatemala City. The violence in this small Central American country knows no limits and currently it is one of the most violent and insecure places in the world that is not in a declared state war. People are consistently murdered for their cell phones on the streets, bus drivers are shot in the head in broad daylight in front of crowds of onlookers and people are openly extorted and killed if they do not pay.
Violence is on the rise and many here feel that the current government has little or no control over the various forces undermining basic civilian normalcy.
As part of a project examining the collective experience of Latin American migrants to the United States I have traveled to Guatemala at least 4 times over the past several years to show the devastating effect that violence has on everyday people in the nation’s capital and demonstrate why some people choose to leave their country’s homeland in search of a better and hopefully safer life in the United States.
With the daily drumbeat of intimidation, fear, extortion, and murder continually met with impunity, the local population grows increasingly desperate. Because the police often do nothing, it is not uncommon for street justice to take over, with mobs clamoring to protect their neighborhoods and enforce provisional order. This body of work attempts to show shows the bloody impact of organized crime, ineffectual government and grinding poverty on everyday working people.